Movie Review - Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott needs to seriously consider throwing rose petals at the feet of Michael Fassbender any time the two are within close proximity.
Before I elaborate on that statement, I have to come clean about how I walked in to Alien: Covenant. The trailers for the film had left me thoroughly unimpressed, so much so that I actually considered passing on the film. A free ticket only grudgingly changed my mind to check it out…since I didn’t have to pay for it, well, there was no buyer’s remorse…so what could it hurt?
Alien: Covenant, like Prometheus before it, resides in two realms. On the positive side, it, like its predecessor, is absolutely beautiful to look at. Of course, this surprises no one as, hello, Ridley Scott. Okay, credit also goes to the cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, who also shot Prometheus. Still, it’s something I kind of always end up forgetting about…but was quickly reminded of in the opening scene with the deployment of the solar sail. In thinking about that scene now, it almost harkens back to Kubrick’s 2001 with its almost balletic movements. The landscape shots establishing the planet our settlers touch down on are simply gorgeous…and since you know they didn’t fly to an alien world for these locations, full marks must be given to the location scout(s) for being able to find such grand vistas. [A quick wiki glance shows that those scenes were likely filmed in New Zealand…so you got lucky. If those vistas had been pure CG, you’d have looked more the idiot than usual…which is really saying something. – Ed.] The only other non-assailable aspect in this film, as stated above, is Fassbender’s performance. Occupying both the role of the Covenant’s ship synthetic, Walter, and David, the mad synthetic from Prometheus, he is still able to give these two full character arcs as identical opposites and single-handedly carries one of the main philosophical themes of the movie (and the film before it): Equality. Throughout Prometheus, we were shown David constantly being treated like the servant he was…and being reminded of it nearly just as often. During the opening credits of the film, we’re quickly reminded of that with a scene involving a younger Peter Weyland and a David who has only just come online. As David’s brain very quickly comes to the realization that between the two, the creator and the created, it is he, the latter, that is the superior being. Weyland quickly changes the tone of the conversation, asserting his dominance and thus setting the tone for the length of David’s days…a forced subjugation. Walter, on the other hand, is set up to be just another member of the crew. Granted, he still has the same ‘housekeeper’ responsibilities of maintaining the ship while the main crew is in hypersleep/suspended animation or whatever, but he isn’t berated as often or as blatantly as David was and as such, a sense of duty arises in him in contrast to David’s disposition. It’s amazing to see this point-counterpoint all take place in one actor inhabiting two roles…and when this conflict becomes physical, that philosophical weight serves only to enhance the action. How the conflict resolves is certainly open to debate, as we’re never shown its final salvo…we’re merely given David’s final summation using Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Is it better to serve in heaven, or reign in hell?” We’ll get to how the film unfolds from there once we get into the negatives of the film. [And don’t worry, we’ll keep spoilers to a minimum. – Ed.] Oh, I nearly forgot, one last positive: Danny McBride as Tennessee. Hell, I think I like him better as a dramatic actor than a comedic one. I’m basing that premise on the fact that I haven’t laughed once at any of his comedic stuff while in this film I found him to be one of the more engaging characters and…truth be told, aside from Walter, was the only other character I genuinely liked.
In the middle ground here, let’s talk about the score composed by Jed Kurzel. On the one hand, it does a pretty good job of combining the themes from Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien and Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus which I really enjoyed…given that the film does serve as a pretty good bridge between the two films. (I’ll expand on that in a bit.) But it also feels like Ken Thorne’s work on Superman II and III in that it, at best, is simply a regurgitation of those themes over and over again with little to no new material. Part of this is understandable as he was likely brought into the process later than most composers after Harry Gregson-Williams departed the project for both scheduling and creative reasons. [Thanks again, Wiki! – Ed.] But other composers have been brought in on short notice and still churn out decent to pretty good scores…the first example popping to my mind is Michael Giacchino taking over Rogue One duties from Alexandre Desplat.
Also sitting in that middle ground, as I mentioned before, was this transition from Prometheus design sensibilities to Covenant’s design. The fact that there is a clear line of evolution that’s very readily apparent from Prometheus to Alien: Covenant to Alien is welcome because prior to this, the designs behind Prometheus and Alien seemed universes away. Hell, the best way to illustrate it would be to compare George Lucas’ shiny and digital Prequel Trilogy to the practical and ‘used future’ aesthetic of the Original Trilogy. In this comparison we see the same criticism arise: technology moving backwards instead of forwards. If everything looked awesome and shiny and sci-fi-y in the prequel, how is it that in future installments, things get grimier and grimier? Ordinarily, I’d call this a horrible flaw in the writing and/or design but given the current regression in matters scientific in the US these days, well, maybe I’m the guy who’s wrong here. [Wouldn’t be the first time…and hey, enough with the politics! You’ve already ranted once more than you should have! – Ed.] I suppose that there are two arguments that can be made here to defend this backwards slide. First, with the Prometheus being not only the Weyland Corporation’s flagship but, Prometheus Spoiler Warning, also carrying Weyland himself, it should be top of the line, shiny and all sci-fi-y…whereas the Nostromo was full of blue-collar, working class grunts on a ship that was likely mass produced with little consideration of aesthetic. The other argument is that as a technology gets older and more commonplace, it becomes less showy and more workmanlike...looking less and less flashy and as such composed of cheaper and cheaper materials. In essence, function overriding form.
Now…to the negative. Covenant is a very unevenly written film and, as such, ends up impacting many other aspects of the film. Let’s start off with the fact that this is the dumbest planned mission ever. Why? Families. Look, I get that this is a colonization ship and, as such, families are vital and yes, need to be on board. I agree with that insofar as said families are PASSENGERS. Covenant however even staffs its crew with married couples which, as the events of the movie unfold, shows us why this is THE DUMBEST FUCKING IDEA EVER. Because if, for instance, the crew medic is the wife of the captain…and said medic gets killed, well, there goes the captain. He’s emotionally compromised and, as such, isn’t fit to make the kind of decisions a captain must be prepared to make. And on that note, I don’t think there’s a single person on this crew (except Walter, of course) who doesn’t have some form of bipolar disorder…because most of the main characters will oscillate between helpless blubbering mass and monumental badass at least 3 separate times throughout the film’s runtime. This knocks over the next domino: the story ends up being more plot driven than character driven…or hell, for that matter intelligence driven! Let me lay out the opening act: The Covenant, on its way to start a colony on the distant world Origae-6, suffers damage en route forcing the crew to be awakened earlier than expected. During this event, a repeating message is received from a nearby planet. Appearing to be even more hospitable than their original destination, the crew heads to this new, closer planet to check it out. As an away team descends on the planet, they emerge wearing essentially nothing more than outdoor hiking gear. Not a single sealed environment suit among any of them…and why would there be, eh? After all, it’s just an unknown alien world with viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that the human body has never been exposed to…so why would anyone need their own, safe, breathable air? Ugh. Look, as a guy who pretends to be a writer, I understand that you need something to move the plot forward…but on a planet full of Deacons (or Neomorphs…you know, the creature introduced at the end of Prometheus)…there’s your engine starter/killing machine responsible for first few deaths. We didn’t need stupidity (breathing in microbes that result in ‘back-bursters’/baby Deacons) upon stupidity (failed quarantine sends hysteric medic into spraying-and-praying with a machine gun on the landing craft resulting in kablooey) to achieve the establishment of the threat and the stranding of the away team. It should be noted at this point that landing on the planet without environment suits and spraying a machine gun inside a landing craft were very close runners up to the DUMBEST FUCKING IDEA award given away earlier in the review. These metaphorical dominoes continue to fall throughout the movie and so as not to give anything away, I won’t delve any deeper…except for one last thing. There is what would actually be a good plot twist near the end of the film that ends up being ruined for two reasons, first, it’s telegraphed about 5 minutes before it actually happens (and the whole point of a twist is to NOT see it coming a mile away) and second, the fact that our Ripley stand-in should have spotted it easily. Sigh. This leads me to my last major gripe…the aforementioned Ripley stand-in that is Daniels, portrayed by Katherine Waterston. [And yes, she IS the daughter of Sam Waterston for all you Law and Order fans out there. – Ed.] Truth be told, from what I saw of her in the trailers and prologue and such…I was not impressed. From all the teary-eyed stares and rapid mood swings, the character seemed a hell of a lot more like Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert from Alien than approaching anything that resembles Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. It’s uncertain whether the blame should fall on the writer, for ‘crafting’ such a weak and (to me at least) unrelatable character or the actress for failing to overcome such a poor foundation for the character and at least imbue her with…well, something…ANYTHING…to at least make Daniels tolerable. The point of this, of course, is to give us, the audience, someone to cheer for…someone that we hope makes it out of this mess alive. Let’s look at Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus. Sure, she made a bunch of stupid decisions in a film of equally questionable writing and yet, I still found myself both liking the character of Shaw and hoping she made it out alive. Daniels? I was seriously hoping for some nasty evisceration or some other kind of painful, tragic fate. [That might have more to do with you being a vindictive bastard. Just saying. – Ed.] But maybe that’s just it. Given how the film ends…maybe it’s best we not get too attached to anyone from the Covenant.
As I stated in the lead, Alien: Covenant is a very uneven film. The film tries to do too much in its 2 hour runtime, wrestling with very large philosophical topics brought to fore by David and Walter mostly, all the while trying to tell a horror story that, unfortunately, falls prey to the weaknesses that end up plaguing a large number of horror films…that of the plot driven narrative. Aside from Fassbender and McBride, none of the other actors brings enough charisma to their roles to make the viewer actually care for or be interested in any of the crew. Thankfully, Fassbender plays into a large part of the story and as such can offset many of the writing pitfalls that arise. His performances certainly justify seeing the film, but the only thing justifying seeing the film in theaters is Ridley Scott’s visuals. Like Prometheus before it, while the writing may be weak, every frame of this film is gorgeous and deserves to be seen on the largest canvas possible. If I were to boil all this down to one sentence, I’d say that if you’re either a fan of the Alien franchise in general or of Prometheus in particular, then by all means go and check it out as soon as you can…but if Prometheus left a bad taste in your mouth and have the feeling that the best parts of the franchise are in the past, you might want to take a pass on this outing…at least until it arrives on home video.